In the context of publicorganizations, there are a number of decision making models that can applied tothe actions of these organizations.
In his book Understanding and Managing Public Organizations, Hal Raineyoutlines a number of different theories of organizational decision making thatexplain why organizations do what they do. The three most prominent theories hedescribes are rational decision making, incremental decision making, and mixedscanning. Each of these will be discussed in depth for their merit andshortfalls.
Rational decision making is the first and simplest methodof making decisions. It is the least complex model of decision making and ithas essentially four baseline factors that play into it. According to Rainey,rational decision making takes place when the actor making decisions is awareof and understands the goal that he or she is trying to complete. In addition,the actor must be able to determine the importance of the goals being evaluatedand then prioritize them accordingly. After this has been done the actor looksat and evaluates all the different ways that a goal can be accomplished, and asa result the actor chooses the action that accomplishes the target goal the mostefficiently and effectively.
Due to the often times, complex and politicallyvolatile nature of the public sector, rational decision making models are bestapplied to less important decisions. For example, a rational decision makingmodel can be applied to day to day operations of the organization itself. Amanager may make a rational choice when it comes to office space, equipmentprocurement, or even minor contracts. When a manager sees a list of options forwhat could be a contract as miniscule as a paper supplier, it is important thatthe manager evaluates the options in front of him and then picks the optionwith the highest value for the lowest price. Rational decision making is amodel that can be applied to evaluate the competency of managers in publicorganizations on a basic level. It allows for a proactive way to improve day today operations, and a manager’s willingness and success in eliminating wastefulspending and completing goals in a fiscally sound and efficient way willimprove an organization overall. On the other side, rationality is limited inthe sense that as the scope and complexity of the goal increases the likelihoodof a manager acting with complete rationality falls significantly. Explored byRainey in his book, he pulls from the ideas of Herbert Simon that publicmanagers are limited in their ability to act rationally by their own cognitiveabilities, as well as their political and organizational environments.
The bookdescribes a term called “Bounded Rationality”, where managers in publicorganizations will attempt to suffice or appease their goals instead of tryingto steadily maximize. From a rational perspective, if an organization has agoal to eliminate wasteful programs and increase revenue by a reasonablepercentage, it should be the obvious decision of a decision making manager toimplement the most effective means of achieving that goal. However, the limitsto the rational thinking are significant in the public sector due to apolitically charged environment. A manager may feel pressure to continuefunding a program even if its wasteful, if it has the support of the public,interest groups, or higher level political influencers. While it may be in theorganizations best interest financially, it may not be in the manager’s bestinterest to actively eliminate programs in pursuit of a goal.
Politicallycharged goals often push managers into maintenance mode, encouraging them tohandle problems as they come up rather than actively push to maximizeperformance which would be the rational perspective. A second way of making decisions in public organizationsis incremental decision making. This form of decision making essentially meansmaking small changes to existing conditions over time. The idea behind thiskind of decision making, is that making large scale decisions in a politicallycharged environment is much more likely to result in large scale opposition andcriticism than making small changes. A general example of this would be budgetcuts and reallocation. If the budget is cut significantly for an organizationor program, it is likely to garner significant resistance from internal andexternal stakeholders, while if the budget is cut slightly it is more likelythat opposition will be less powerful and less organized. Incremental decisionmaking is an accurate perspective on the complexities of taking any sort ofmeaningful action in the complex climate of the public sector. This kind ofdecision making, as opposed to full rational decision making, takes intoaccount how strong the correlation is between political actors and the actionsof public organizations.
A manager cannot simply state and achieve a majorgoal, he or she must propose a small and almost insignificant change andapproach a budgetary decision maker about funding. With this sort of decisionmaking, it is imperative that a manager acts strategically. The logic here isthat it is better to get a little bit of progress towards a goal over time,than ask for too much and get no progress or a regression. This perspective ofdecision making is important for managers in public organizations to take intoaccount because it is essentially a blueprint for navigating a contemporarypolitics administration relationship, however this theory is slow, far tooconservative, and an affront to meaningful action as it stands by itself. A third important theory of decision making to look at inthe context of public organizations is Mixed Scanning. This theory isessentially a compromise between Rationality and Incrementalism. It draws onboth theories to allow for both to have a place in terms of large scopedecisions.
In his book, Rainey suggests that mixed scanning allows for rationaldecision making to be used broadly to recognize more effective alternatives ofpursuing a goal in the context of the contemporary political climate. While inthe same process, incrementalism is used to implement new steps andprogressions in the process of pursuing that same goal. So if a manager laysout a goal for an organization to pursue based on the funding and support thatthe organization has at the moment to pursue the goal, as well as projectedsupport at each step of the process; the logic would be that the process ofachieving the goal would be pursued while during its course the manager andthose associated with the program continued to evaluate alternative financialand operational measures to better pursue that goal. This form of decisionmaking is widely applicable to setting a productive schedule for goalachievement in the slow moving context of the public sector, however itcertainly has its shortfalls. Often times it can be very difficult torationally evaluate potential alternatives in goals that take years to completeand when problems arise at one step of the process, actors can be victim to theincremental nature of the problem that arises. If a manager is implementing aprogram that comes with an unforeseen problem, the rational way to fix theproblem may not be feasible in an incrementally inclined environment, thusleading to an added layer to eliminate over time before the program can evenget back on track toward completing its initial goal. Mixed Scanning is verysimilar to the more contemporary idea of “logical incrementalism”, whichessentially refers to a business-like approach of setting a broad framework ofstrategic incremental change, and in the implementation of that process,evaluating and changing priorities to more effectively carry out the operation.
It goes hand and hand with mixed scanning, and in the synthesis ofincrementalism and rationality, it is important to mention. Each theory of decision making in public organizationshas some merit, and under certain conditions one may carry more weight than theothers. Like previously stated, for day to day decisions about agencyoperations, rational decision making is often the most logical way to look atsolutions.
When the problem is simple, and the solution has very few unintendedconsequences, rational decision making can be utilized to its full potential.Incremental decision making is important to at least understand how scope ofproblems affects the actions of decision makers. In the current politicalclimate where conditions of fluctuating budgets, saliency of problems, andpolitical influence add tremendous layers of complexity to decisions; one canuse incremental decision making to lay out a plan for small steps to achieve agoal. In a highly complex environment, this kind of decision making allowsactors to operate without significant backlash in theory. Mixed scanning takesinto consideration the fluidity of the environment in which decision makers inpublic organizations operate, as well as the importance of approachingincremental change with rational evaluations of the overall framework of thesolution. Under any conditions where a solution takes time to implement, amixed scanning or logical incrementalism perspective is important toeffectively operate within the rules of the environment and also effectivelyadapt actions and projected incremental actions with better alternatives.Public organizations make decisions using all of these different theories ofdecision making, it often times just depends on the circumstance. Issues withgreater effects on a greater number of people are likely handled with moreincrementalist or mixed scanning actions than completely rationally.
Inaddition, another form of decision making worth noting is the “garbage canmodel” (Rainey). This model of decision making is popular and essentiallystates that there are many problems and many already thought of solutions.Often times policy entrepeneurs and problem solvers will simply look atpotential problems and solutions until one matches up. This is a different butimportant way of looking at decision makings in a fluid way where decisionmakers are affected by factors like rapidly changing political influence, technologicallimitations, and expertise. For example, if an organization has a solution fora problem that isn’t favorable with their resources or the current politicalclimate, they may table that solution until a new political climate, or moreresources come about. Decision making in public organizations has many levels,and many perspectives for dealing with each one.
There are several factors thatdetermine what an agency does, how they do it, and how effective they are atdoing it and that all comes down to the constraints that manager’s deal with inmaking decisions. Within a public organization, in day to day operations and inlong term evaluation, it is important to evaluate their actions in all of thedifferent decision making perspectives to understand their performance.